Behind The Lights – Ethan White
A portrait of the MLS professional soccer player turned internationally renowned photographer
The evocation of an emotion for the viewer, the simultaneous capture of the emotion of the athlete: an emotion already experienced firsthand. Ethan White’s photography focuses on this dualism, articulating it with a much richer background than those of many of his colleagues. Photographing soccer and photographing the sports lifestyle, for this 31-year-old American, is in fact equivalent to photographing himself.
Only a few years ago Ethan was a top professional soccer player. Only a few years ago Ethan was managing the defensive line of New York City FC and seemed to be in the middle of a brilliant career entirely developed in MLS, the highest expression of American soccer.
Only a few years ago. Then, out of nowhere, came a decision seemingly incomprehensible to many colleagues and insiders: Ethan retired from soccer at just 27 years old to devote himself to the lens, to the art of portraying faces, feelings and visual aesthetics.
“Once I became a professional player, I realized how important it was to have a passion outside the field. Documenting my life was a way to extend my creativity, to open my mind, to think about other things. Photography has definitely helped my soccer career. The daily hours spent creating moodboards and photographing allowed me to get out of a whirlwind, to relieve pressure. When I was playing for the Philadephia Union, I got my first paying job with Mitchell & Ness. When I arrived in New York, in the beating heart of the fashion universe, the job opportunities literally exploded, Adidas for example offered me a job without knowing that I was still a player… I was thinking about moving to play in Europe, but in the end I decided to leave soccer to focus on this passion”
At the age of two, Ethan wore his first soccer shoes. In high school, instead, he picked up his first camera: an action related to sneakers and the dynamics of reselling. Simple explanation: you have to portray a shoe in the best possible way in order to resell it (at the time on Ebay) and buy another one. In the same period the camera began to accompany him on trips with the youth national team and to invade every second spent outside the field.
Sports on one side, lifestyle and fashion on the other. Inspired by Walter Iooss Jr. and his ability to portray every facet of Michael Jordan’s multidimensional power, not only in basketball, Ethan began to follow the trait d’union between coolness and sport: a combination that is hegemonizing photography and, above all, contemporary fashion.
“I think soccer and fashion are two means of self-expression. They are two languages: just as you can communicate with your feet, you can communicate with your clothes. It’s about getting inspired and being inspired. Walter Iooss was perfect in portraying MJ’s intimacy, showing how he dressed and the progression of his life: that’s why he’s a great reference point”
Ethan White, in his own way, has also become a reference point for many teammates, penetrating the locker room’s barrier of superficiality and showing, especially to the younger generation, a life that doesn’t revolve solely around the ball.
“Some people were initially unconvinced about how much time I put into photography. As soon as I explained and showed my passion, they immediately changed their minds. Today’s world allows for more and more input, more and more content that can shape yourself and your personality: that’s why I’m convinced that everyone can be much more than just an athlete. My retirement made many others reflect: some teammates started thinking about a passion to be developed during their sporting career. Many of them have understood the importance of this awareness: it is fundamental to perfectly manage the physiological transition at the end of a career. For me, for example, the transition was very easy”
A transition that was made easy by an already solidified status in the New York photographic universe, where Ethan in his last months as a football player had begun to collaborate with leading brands, demonstrating an uncommon quality: the ability to create bonds and deep connections with athletes, to create an atypical relationship between peers usually impossible for ‘common’ photographers.
Ethan’s background allows the Maryland native to treat the field in a different way than the traditional shot. The instinct he honed as a protagonist on the green field allows him to investigate much more than goals and tackles: that’s why his football speak a language made of local culture, of micro-stories, of personal novels lived around and inside the ninety minutes.
“When I go to see a game I want to capture everything, as if it were a film, I want to tell the whole story. I’m lucky because I’ve experienced everything I see: I can understand the players’ moods, what’s going on in their heads, and I can even predict what’s going to happen on the field…. Many times I find myself framing a point, a situation, while all my colleagues are framing something completely different: all the cameras are turned one way, except mine. I like to be ‘personal’ with the players and I love to observe the reflections that national and local cultures have on the stadium environment. From club to club, country to country: everything is different, each culture celebrates soccer differently”
From Monterrey, where every Sunday takes shape a boiling and carnivalesque form of devotion to the god fútbol, to Jordan, where Ethan spent a few days inside a refugee camp where soccer represents the only, albeit momentary, form of redemption. Thanks to the union of his passions, Ethan is succeeding in discovering and making people discover territories, traditions and forms of football religion.
As it happened last year in Italy, in Venice, where the American was a long time guest of the lagoon society. An artistic residence embellished by the promotion in Serie A of the ‘Winged Lions’ and that, now, has been cemented in the release of a publication entirely dedicated to that path: the last project of a second career that, by now, has reached the same levels of excellence previously demonstrated in the monumental stars and stripes stadiums.
“The season was simultaneously strange and spectacular. Strange because I arrived in Venice just before the lockdown: the city changed quickly, the tourists disappeared, as did the fans at the stadium. I documented this transformation, this unique moment in the city’s recent history, without the distractions that would have come with a ‘normal’ Venice. Spectacular because at the end of a long ride, Venezia FC won the playoffs and was promoted to the top series. Now the book has just come out. In the future I want to continue to nurture this combination of sports, fashion and culture, inside me there is still a fundamental part of the athlete Ethan: the desire to always improve, to continue to grow and to become the best at what I do”
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